FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Ah, there’s nothing like playing a big game in December, right?
And there’s no NFL team that’s better at playing in December than the New England Patriots.
The Patriots have won 12 consecutive games in December, third-best all-time in NFL history. That streak will be tested tonight when the Houston Texans come visiting.
The folks at ESPN have to be drooling over this one:
Both teams have won six in a row. The Texans are 11-1, seeded first in the AFC. The Patriots are 9-3, currently seeded second. Houston has one of the league’s top defenses, led by end J.J. Watt and his 15.5 sacks; the Patriots have the league’s most prolific offense this year, led by quarterback Tom Brady.
Asked if this game would provide a measuring stick for the Patriots, Brady said, “They’re a great football team so any time you play the best you want to see how you match up.”
The fact that the game is at Gillette Stadium should give the Patriots a boost.
New England has a 22-1 record at home in December since Brady became the starting quarterback, winning their last 19 at Gillette Stadium, which opened in 2002. The lone loss? A 30-17 decision to the New York Jets on Dec. 22, 2002, a loss that knocked the then-Super Bowl-defending Patriots out of playoff contention.
But then, as Brady said in his weekly press conference last Wednesday, December is the time of year you want to be playing your best.
“I think the mark of our teams over the years has been (that) we’ve improved as the season has gone along,” said Brady. “December is the last month to really improve … Coach (Bill Belichick) puts pressure on us in practice every day to improve to get better and not to make the same mistakes and to learn from our mistakes.
“I think we as a team have responded to that and played well. That’s what’s important this time of the year: To not make the same mistakes we were making in September and to play our best football. This will be a great week to see if we can accomplish that.”
The Patriots have always had a single-minded approach to football: Concentrate strictly on the next opponent and nothing else. They’ve been faced with distractions, both personally and organizationally, and have almost always been able to overcome them.
Wide receiver Donte Stallworth, who played the 2007 season with New England and re-signed with them last Tuesday, said Belichick doesn’t let the Patriots consider anything other than what’s in front of them.
“He doesn’t allow his players to look ahead to the future,” said Stallworth on Wednesday. “Even the immediate future. He doesn’t allow us, even today, to look towards Friday’s practice. It’s about today’s preparation, taking it day by day and not focusing on over-shooting your goal.
“And your goal every day is to focus on that particular day, that particular meeting, that particular practice. I think that has a lot to do with it.”
Certainly every NFL team attempts this approach. But the Patriots have mastered it because the players — new or veteran — have bought into Belichick’s philosophy.
“It’s all about leadership,” said cornerback Kyle Arrington, in his fourth season with the Patriots. “Guys like Tom, Vince (Wilfork), (Jerod) Mayo. And obviously it starts at the top with Bill. We just try our best as players to follow suit.”
And they’ve done a pretty good job. Under Belichick, the Patriots record in December — home or away — is 44-7, the best December record among head coaches with one team in NFL history. The current 12-game December winning streak ties their own streak from 2006-08. A win tonight ties them with Dallas (1968-72) for second all-time, behind San Diego, which won 18 consecutive December games from 2006-09.
To do that, the Patriots know they have to do all the little things right against a team many consider the best in the AFC — possibly the NFL — so far.
“We work on fundamentals from Day 1,” said Arrington. “(Off-season) workouts, training camp, even now. Even this far into the season we’re working on fundamentals. This is the time when we want to be playing of best ball.
“By no means has it been perfect or will it really ever be perfect. But it doesn’t stop us from striving for it.”